Welcome back to the In-App Purchase Inspector - our regular look at free-to-play games from the consumer's perspective.
In each instalment, we consider the incentives or pressure applied to make in-app purchases, their perceived value, the expansion offered by IAPs and the overall value of the experience.
The end goal is to see whether the game makes a good enough case for us to part with our cash, or whether players are content - or engaged enough - to 'freeload'.
This time, we're taking a look at Nintendo and DeNA’s mobile free-to-play take on Fire Emblem with Fire Emblem Heroes.
Of Pokemon, Mario and Fire Emblem, few would suggest that the latter was Nintendo’s biggest franchise.
And yet, Fire Emblem Heroes might well prove to be more significant than Pokemon GO and Super Mario Run when it comes to predicting Nintendo’s future in mobile gaming.
After all, Nintendo itself had little involvement with Pokemon GO, and - for better or worse - opted not to engage with free-to-play in Super Mario Run.
The negative reviews and poor engagement in Super Mario Run asked Nintendo a serious question about how best to approach mobile.
Fire Emblem Heroes, then, is the first time Nintendo itself has brought one of its franchises into the free-to-play realm.
Super Mario Run generated great revenues, but the negative reviews and poor engagement among the approximately 95% of players who decided not to pay $9.99 for the full experience asked Nintendo a serious question about how best to approach mobile.
Fire Emblem Heroes will go some way to clarifying what that answer should be.
Made to measure
Instantly, Fire Emblem Heroes makes sense as a free-to-play title.
This is largely due to the fact that it sticks fairly closely to a formula long established in Asian mobile RPGs, involving a large roster of characters and a random, gacha-style system of recruiting them.
A mobile turn-based strategy game always runs the risk of being too time-consuming for impatient, on-the-go players.
But to its credit, Fire Emblem Heroes features small battlefields and snappy animations to prevent things from getting too plodding.
There's an auto-battle mode for those less interested in battling and are more on the metagame.
Furthermore, it also features an auto-battle mode lurking in the in-battle options menu for those less interested in battling and are more focused on the metagame.
A lot to give
Gacha-infused RPGs tend to monetise well and Fire Emblem Heroes has all the ingredients to be one of them.
It’s got an energy system, multiple currencies and the aforementioned gacha system that - particularly when combined with a beloved character roster - can be a big draw for players.
However, Fire Emblem Heroes undercuts its rivals in all of these areas, resulting in a game with almost zero pressure to spend money.
Take the energy system, for example. With a maximum of 50 stamina points and the cost of a standard story mission ranging between two and five, it takes some seriously dedicated play to deplete it.
It’s hard to see the motivation to buy Orb bundles.
The same approach is taken with hard currency Orbs, the game doling them out at a rate of one per stage cleared.
With this in mind, it’s hard to see the motivation to buy any more in bundles ranging from a paltry three for $1.99 to 140 for $74.99 - especially when everything is so cheap.
If all your troops die in battle, it’s costs one Orb to revive them. The same cost applies to refilling your stamina and replenishing Dueling Swords, which are required to play PvP.
Even to summon a new character, the high-ticket item in most free-to-play games, costs only five Orbs.
From a player’s perspective, this is obviously great. And with a fusion system present for duplicate characters, it means dedicated or high-spending players can summon characters in bulk and still have a use for each one.
The best value purchases, however - and as far as I can see the best reason to shell out for more Orbs - are the castle upgrades.
These not only have a cosmetic effect on the backdrop, but more importantly boost all EXP earned by a certain percentage.
At 10% EXP increase per Orb - two Orbs buys 20%, four Orbs buys 40%, etc. - it's low price and high impact.
Giving it away
One wonders, then, what Nintendo’s motivation is here.
The game wastes no time in launching a sales pitch for the 3DS games, so is the main plan for Fire Emblem Heroes to simply build awareness?
Did Nintendo fear that pressuring its players too hard could backfire when many of its players may be unaccustomed to the free-to-play model?
The truth is likely a combination of factors. Regardless, the result is a game that is extremely polished, enjoyable even for a non-series fan and extremely generous monetisation-wise.